Jeff Casimir is a well-known name in the bootcamp world; he worked with LivingSocial in 2012 to start the Hungry Academy, then went on to partner with Galvanize to create gSchool, and he's continuing the evolution with Turing, a 7-month coding school in Denver, Colorado. Jeff shares his thoughtful philosophies on education, the differences between gSchool and Turing, and how to best bump up his students' "happiness curves."
Tell us about your background and about all of the coding schools you’ve been involved with.
I started teaching in 2003 with Teach for America in D.C. In 2007, I co-founded a Middle School there in the city and was Vice Principal until 2009. Along the way, I taught programming and I ended up building applications to help run our school. I didn’t know anything about Lean Startup, but it was an accidental lean startup- on the first day of school, the app only recorded the kids’ names and addresses. Then I had to build class enrollments and build grading assignments. That’s where I learned a lot of hard lessons about building software. In 2009 I left K-12 to start Jumpstart Lab.
Most of Jumpstart Lab’s work over the next few years was corporate training, teaching one-two week classes within companies. Back at the middle school, we had this idea of the “happiness curve” that our students had some curve and we saw our work as bumping that curve. In doing corporate training, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I was working with people who already had excellent jobs; I wanted to get back to bumping the curves.
In late 2011, I talked to Chad Fowler, a friend who was, at the time, the VP of Technology at LivingSocial. The conversation was, “If you had really good, smart hardworking people, how long would it take to turn them into programmers?” I said 6 months, he said he had budget for 5 months and I said, “Okay, 5 months it is.”
We fired up Hungry Academy with LivingSocial. We had about 750 applicants for 24 slots and went through a very difficult process to pick that group. We worked really hard for 5 months. The anticipation going in was that LivingSocial was going to hire like 12 of the students out of the 24 – they ended up hiring all 24.
Hungry Academy was very successful by all metrics. It became clear at the end that the company was fighting for profitability and launching another large expensive program was not going to be in the cards. For Jumpstart Lab, we wanted to create something that was more sustainable and I decided to flip over towards a tuition-based model where students come to us.
Hungry Academy in my view proved the model of what we wanted to do. We knew that this was possible. We wanted to figure out now, how do we make a business that can last for 20, 40, 50 years?
Did you develop that full curriculum for Hungry Academy?
Yes. My co-teacher and I developed everything. We were able to leverage pieces that we had from Jumpstart Lab, but that was only 20-30% of what we needed for Hungry Academy. Hungry Academy was ‘just in time’ education. We were often writing the tutorials in the minutes before we would teach them. It was very difficult. I never want to teach my first class ever again, I’ll say that.
How did you end up partnering with Galvanize for gSchool?
I was nervous about funding and specifically, if people have to pay the full tuition upfront then that selects for only a subset of the population. That wasn’t broad enough for me. If we see the school as having a social justice mission, changing the happiness curve for people, then only accepting people who can pay full tuition up front is not good enough.
We needed a way to allow people to defer a chunk, and ideally, most of the tuition. But that, of course, creates huge cash flow problems. So that’s where I felt it would be smart to have a business partner. We partnered with Galvanize in Denver. We created gSchool as a business partnership then started taking applications. We got about 175 applications for the first class and picked 24, and started that in January of 2013.
One of the things that’s really awesome about our program is getting to see such diverse backgrounds. We’ve had bartenders and chemists and lawyers and finance people and warehouse managers…all over the map. Diversity in terms of race and gender, we still have a ways to go but in background and socioeconomic status, I think we’re doing really well.
After graduating the first class at gSchool, it became clear that the partnership with Galvanize was not going to be a long-term fit so we agreed to dissolve that, which was very challenging. Jumpstart Lab agreed to teach one more gSchool class so we taught the class from July to February of 2014. As of this week, 100% of them have accepted a job.
Does Turing have a money-back guarantee?
For Turing, we do have a guarantee that we’ve bumped up from the gSchool days. If you graduate from the program then we guarantee that we’ll help you find a job offer of at least $65K within three months or we’ll refund your tuition. You have to pass the final exam and meet attendance expectations in order to qualify.
NOTE: As of November 6, 2015, Turing no longer offers a Guarantee. You can read all about why in this blog post!
Why did you decide to give final exams?
I think particularly in private education, there are a lot of places that will give you a certificate and you can’t get a job. So clearly, that certificate wasn’t worth anything. I think over time ours will stand for something. It reminds me a little bit of the Super Bowl; my dad likes to tell a story about how he went to the first Super Bowl. It was an exhibition game; he got a free ticket on the radio because they were trying to fill the stands. Now that seems incredible.
That’s how I think of our certificate for Turing. Right now it doesn’t carry a lot of weight. And 10 years from now it’ll be like, “Oh, shit! You went to Turing? That’s awesome!”
Rachel Warbelow is on your Turing team, which we think is awesome. How did you two meet and what will Rachel be working on at Turing?
I have this belief that if you try to do the right things and you keep your eyes open, then good things will appear and you just have to grab them. I knew Rachel’s story from when she did SWOTbot. Before she went to Dev Bootcamp, we had emailed about her coming to our program, but the timing wasn’t going to work out. And then one day she appeared in my office and I knew we had to hire her.
The biggest downside to hiring Rachel is that I hate taking good people out of the classroom (Rachel was teaching at a school in Las Vegas). But I think the work that she’s going to do with us is still in the same vein of the work that she did in Las Vegas.
One of the things she’s really excited about is doing more K-12 work here in Denver and getting kids involved in programming, hopefully towards getting them interested in studying it further and even pursuing CS in college.
We’re starting to hear more about coding bootcamps being an alternative to college. What do you think about the college vs. bootcamp debate?
There are two memes that I get sick of. Number one is that everyone should start a business – because starting a business sucks. As a business owner, I will tell that to everyone I meet. And number two is hearing people say that college is “bullshit.”
The people in this business who say, “Oh, we’re disrupting college, college is bullshit…” are usually people who have been to college. It makes it easy to say what bullshit college is when you’ve got that Stanford degree in your back pocket.
I don’t want to disrupt college. I think students are racking up way too much debt, but college is a really valuable experience if you can do it.
gSchool was 6 months long, and Turing is 7 months long!
Hungry Academy was 5 months, gSchool 6 months, and Turing is 7 months. Will there be a next thing that’s 8? The answer is no.
Why is Turing 7 months long when these other programs are 9-12 weeks?
I tend to flip it around- why are other programs 9 weeks? I have very strong opinions about how to run education. In my view, when I look at other programs, I have been educating and running education longer and more intensely than anyone else so it never occurred to me to think about what they were doing. I presumed that I would have the most informed opinion. HA felt a little too short at 5 monts, gSchool needed more time for revisiting and personal projects, so now Turing is 7 months.
I think that’s the max a student can take. If Turing was 12 months, our students wouldn’t really learn more than what they learn at 7, they need to get out into the workforce.
How are the 7 months divided up?
It’s 24 weeks of content divided into four, 6-week classes, and then there’s an intermission week in between each class. That’s where it expands from the 24 weeks we ran with gSchool to the 27 weeks for Turing.
What are students doing during that intermission week?
I’m asking them to do what they need to do most. For some students, that means get out of the country because they need to renew some kind of visa. For some students, they need a break and they need to visit their significant others, and we have students that leave their kids and so forth and they need to get out of town and go see them. Some students need to revisit content. Some will use it as a time to work on a personal project.
Do you give assessments throughout the 7 months in addition to the final exam?
Yes. Each 6-week class is now pass or fail and you have to pass the exam at the end in order to move on to the next class. If you don’t pass then you have the option to repeat that class.
We’re staggering our start dates so students can drop back to the cohort behind them.
When we came up with that idea of doing staggering classes we were like, this is gonna be amazing! Somebody said to me “oh, like DevBootcamp?” I didn’t know that Dev Bootcamp was doing it already. I wish they had told me that idea. That’s the thing - Dev Bootcamp, Starter League, Flatiron, and us have more or less been in this game for the same amount of time, so are learning a lot of the same lessons.
Do you talk or collaborate with founders of other bootcamps?
We do. I’ve had a strong relationship with the team at Starter League since they got started. Flatiron School and I have a good relationship and I’ve given a guest talk to their students. I just spent a day at Dev Bootcamp Chicago a couple weeks ago.
Across different programs we have some fundamental differences of opinion about how programs should be structured and executed. There’s enough diversity across programs that they can each fit a different student profile. But there isn’t any other model that I’d rather have.
So you have about 25 students per class at Turing.
Yeah, though our first classes will probably be a bit small. It’s not acceptable to lower our admission standards to hit a number.
We’re making a really big promise to people to potentially quit a job, move, and commit a tremendous amount of time. If we don’t think they’re going to be really successful, it’d be fraudulent to let them into the program. We’ll have a class of 12 students before we’ll have a class where we knowingly admit people that we don’t believe are going to be successful.
What does a successful applicant for Turing look like?
There’s a certain amount of intangibility to it. I was listening to a podcast yesterday with Rafael Corales, a VC at Charles River Ventures, and he was saying that what he looks for in founders is a feeling of inevitable success in the person. Not in their skills, not in the company that they’re building, but in the person.
That’s really how I think about it; I just didn’t have the words until he said it.
We tend to see two groups of students. There are the students who went to college, or maybe started college and didn’t finish. Then they’ve been working on a job for a couple of years, it sucks, they’re earning not that much money, it’s not that stable; it tends to be 25 to 45K and it’s something they want to get out of. So becoming a developer means job stability, something where they can be creative and of course have a higher salary.
The second group are the traditional high achievement group where they went to college, mostly got a professional degree on top of that, got into the profession that they studied and realized they hate it. So they’re often earning over 150K, have a very stable job but they want to walk away from it because it’s not interesting.
The conversation around developer training tends to focus so much on salary. But, especially for that second group, salary isn’t the thing. We bring it back to that idea of the happiness curve. If you end up in a development job that you love, we’ve helped you bump your curve, regardless of salary.
Do you have a technical test that applicants take? Do people need to have some programming experience?
I don’t like pre-work and I don’t like taking people who are already programmers. When we were starting Hungry Academy, I thought a lot about this problem: How would we assess aptitude for programming for people who don’t know how to program?
I had a theory that what the LSAT tests for is very similar to what we need in programming. With the law, you have propositions, you have connections between laws but there’s still a lot of interpretation and fuzziness to it- and that’s really a lot like programming. I looked at the LSAT and specifically the LSAT “games” - I gave one of them to about 20 engineers, very top flight engineers and got back the same results from all of them. It was 5 questions and all of them got 4 or 5 out of 5 correct. Now that’s not a proof that people who do well on this are good at programming but it’s least a hypotheses that there’s some connection between these skills. So for our interview process, we basically paired with our applicants like we would pair program, and help them with some of the strategies and then see in the evaluation how they work with those strategies.
We have it broken down into a numeric metric system but the reality is, it’s a lot of gut and it’s looking for that inevitability of success. Given these hard problems, can you work with someone to get to what you need and can you do it effectively in a way that I want to work with you. We’re together all day, every day for 7 months. You’ve got to be a pretty interesting, cool, hygienic, nice, polite person to want to spend that much time together.
Is the application process different at Turing?
With Turing, we’re actually accepting a really high percentage of people that we interview. At gSchool, we were accepting about 1 out of 3. With Turing right now it’s about 2 out of 3, which is really interesting – and scary. The big change is that with Turing, we took part of that logic test and moved it into the front of the application; so you do your resume, biographical details, video, a writing sample and now also a logic test. If people fight through all those pieces they tend to be really committed and if they do well on that logic test, we’ve seen almost 100% of them do really well in the interview test.
Our funnel has a really sharp angle to it. A lot of people start the application, very few of them finish, but the ones who finish have a very high chance of getting in; which is awesome, it’s very efficient for us to be doing interviews and to be pulling 2 out of 3 people or half the people we interview; that’s amazing compared to the old stats.
Most colleges and programs are going to brag about what a low percentage of applicants they’re accepting. If you accept 5% of applicants that means you’re wasting a lot of time evaluating the other 95% of people. We shifted the challenge on to the student to make our processes more efficient. If we interview you, there’s a good chance you’ll get an invite.
What is your first cohort at Turing looking like? Is it mostly people from Denver?
I don’t have a clear picture because a lot of people are still confirming. In the past, about half of our students come from Colorado and half come from out of state. I think it’s advantageous to come from out of state because you don’t have the same distractions. You don’t have friends and soccer teams and all that kind of stuff; you’re able to just focus.
After the course, about half of students stay and about half leave. There’s a really high mix there where people that grew up here are like “see ya, I’m going to New York!” And the people that came from New York want to stay.
Will you accept students who aren’t interested in getting a job after Turing, but maybe want to start their own business?
Yeah, definitely. One of the things that was important for me to keep open with both gSchool and Turing was I didn’t want to get involved in placement fees and partner companies and all that stuff. I have some jokes about that I probably shouldn’t make in an interview but I think it’s just really wrong. I don’t like the incentives that it creates, where it’s like “I have a deal with this company so I’m going to push you towards this place, even though there’s this other company I know that would be a better fit.”
Do you suggest that graduates start a business?
I wanted to keep the door open for students to start their own business. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize it’s probably a bad idea. In our program, you pay tuition, you pay your cost of living and you have this opportunity cost of not working. That is going to burn up most anybody’s savings, friends and family, whatever it is.
You need to be ready for a new business to go for 6, 12 months without earning a dollar. The chances, after you’ve burned up all those savings, that you have more to fund a year of not earning any money are pretty low.
There isn’t a big rush in tech. Go work for somebody for two years, build up your experience, build up your network, build up your savings and then if you want to make the big leap and build something awesome, go do it. From the outside, there are a lot of people who make a lot of money by convincing developers that you have to hurry everything. That if you want to build this amazing product, you need our investment because there’s this other company and they’re going to be the first to market.
But over and over, we see that being first-to-market is a minor advantage. If you deliver a better product, you tend to win. So I tell our students, “You’ve got this idea – that’s cool. If you’re passionate about it, you’re going to defeat anybody else who tries to do it. So be patient and refine it and start to do the research, start to build the prototypes in the nights and weekends while somebody else is paying your rent and paying for your food and all that. Then, once you’re convinced of the inevitability of success, then jump out and do it. Don’t bankrupt yourself and don’t be compelled to take VC.”
What's the difference between gSchool and Turing?
We see it as an evolution. Hungry Academy was v1, gSchool v2, now Turing v3. From HA to gSchool we made a lot of improvements to the curriculum, but there were structural problems we couldn't fix.
Across our gSchool classes we saw a recurring problem. If you were in the bottom 25% of the class after four weeks, you were still in the bottom 25% at the end of 24 weeks. You could work super hard and make lots of progress, but people who made progress when you were struggling would always be ahead of you. It's difficult, psychologically, to put your heart into something, feel like you're making progress, but just see everyone else making faster progress.
And, for the other 75% of the students, it's tough on them too. They want to see you succeed, so they're spending time mentoring and pairing. Maybe we don't move as quickly as we could through the content. Everyone's worse off.
That's where the staggered cohorts and pass/fail classes come in. If you struggle through the first six weeks and repeat it, you've jumped from the bottom of your first cohort to probably the top of your new cohort. You're now in a position of succeeding, getting that psychological reinforcement, and enjoying your learning.
That's the big difference. We're looking to build a critical mass of learning. By the end of 2014 we expect to have 100 students across four running cohorts. In 2015 we'll layer on a design program and some short-term programs for experienced developers. I wouldn't be surprised if there are 200 students in the building by the end of 2015. The opportunities there for collaboration are really exciting. And, long run, that community combined with the learning outcomes for the students are what will set us apart.